Maine Resident Dies After Catching Rare Virus Spread by Tick Bites

A Maine resident has died after acquiring a rare virus spread by ticks, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Waldo County resident died in hospital after falling ill with Powassan virus, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said in a press release on Wednesday.

It is thought that the resident, described as an adult, likely became infected in Maine. They died after developing neurological symptoms.

"Ticks are active and looking for a host to bite right now," Nirav D. Shah, Director of the Maine CDC, said in the DHHS press release. "I urge Maine people and visitors to take steps that prevent tick bites."

What is Powassan Virus?

Powassan virus is spread to people from the bite of an infected tick, which itself has become infected after feeding on rodents that have the virus in their blood. People cannot transmit the virus from person to person, though the U.S. CDC states that anyone recently diagnosed with it should not donate blood or bone marrow for 120 days after infection.

Powassan virus is described as rare in the country, though the number of people falling ill with it has increased in recent years. Between 2011 and 2020, the total number of cases reported to the CDC was 194 with 22 deaths.

A close-up stock photo of a tick on some dry grass. Ticks can spread Powassan virus by biting people. Dzurag/Getty

Most cases occur in the northeast and Great Lakes regions from late spring through to mid-fall when ticks are most active, the CDC states.

Symptoms of Powassan virus may not show up at all, but if they do it can take between one week to one month from being bitten to feeling sick. Symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, and weakness.

In severe cases, Powassan virus can cause infection of the brain, known as encephalitis, or the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, known as meningitis. In such cases, symptoms might include confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, and seizures. About one in ten people with severe disease die.

About half of those who survive severe disease from Powassan virus have long-term health issues like memory problems, headaches, and loss of strength.

There are no vaccines or medications that can treat or prevent Powassan virus. However, people can reduce their risk of getting infected by preventing tick bites. These small insects live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas as well as on animals.

One method of avoidance is to treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin or use an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone.

More CDC advice on avoiding ticks can be found on the agency's website here.